Campaign Cover Stories & Fungible Blackness, Part 2

by Tryon P. Woods  (11/7/2016 – continued from Part 1)

One of the reasons why the 2016 campaign and selection will be largely inconsequential to abolitionism and black liberation is that antiblackness is well entrenched not only in plain sight, as Wahneema Lubiano has taught us, but moreover, in the very places that present themselves as anti-racist and multicultural.  The appearance of the cast of the Broadway hit Hamilton at the White House in March 2016 amplified the cultural heights of antiblackness.  The “post-racial” president salutes the “post-racial” show—both, the presidency and Broadway, entertainment vehicles in their own rights.  Hamilton adds black and brown faces to a national mythology without altering that narrative in any substantive manner.  To recall Gerald Horne’s argument in The Counter-Revolution of 1776, noted in “”Campaign Cover Stories and Fungible Blackness, Part 1,” Lin-Manuel Miranda and his crew portray the Founding Generation’s most prominent slaveholders and traders beatboxing and rapping—the counter-revolutionaries against black freedom in a strange type of blackface.  This is how the “post-racial” era perpetrates its ultimate cover story:  what makes this period unique is that (1) it compels a re-testimony of racial injury or injustice that (2) ends up further mystifying the realities of racial regime.[i]  The mystification aims to have it both ways:  condemn slavery as evil and then resurrect the people who perpetrated it as “self-made” men and the social structures based on it as multicultural and inclusive, minus the slavery.[ii]  Slave traders who rock the mic!

Of course, if Hamilton is a blackface performance, then the president himself must come under scrutiny for “state minstrelsy,” as Lubiano termed Justice Thomas’ confirmation hearings.  Obama’s feting of Miranda, Hamilton’s creator, and campaigning for Clinton work hand-in-hand to misrecognize antiblackness.  Obama stooped to new lows of state minstrelsy, even for campaign season, in his recent stump speech for Clinton at North Carolina A&T University.  In addition to his arrogant pandering to the black audience—Utrice Leid described it as a “carnival barker” performance, invoking the grotesque and the absurd—Obama was speaking at a historically black university against which he had levied funding cuts larger than any previous administration, all while he had elsewhere featured education prominently in his economic stimulus package.  We have sunk a long way since the days when students at HBCUs and other campuses around the country rose up against precisely this kind of historical treachery.  As Leid noted, because of what he has done to black people, the students at A&T should never had permitted Obama onto campus in the first place.

But then how could we expect such resistance to arise out of widespread delusion?  Mass incarceration offers another example of how the people have allowed the horror in to such a degree that they look to the very same politicians to lead them from the communal destruction that the politicians perpetrated against them in the first place.  The Clintons have used the 2016 campaign to position themselves as the ones to lead us out of the mass incarceration fiasco for which they, more than any other leaders, are responsible.  Netflix released Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th on October 7, 2016 and solidified criminal justice reform as a bi-partisan issue for the 2016 campaign.  Jared Ball persuasively argues that the film not only serves as a Clinton campaign ad, but that it also was intended as such, given the corporate interests behind its production.[iii]  The film argues that the clause in the 13th Amendment which states that slavery shall not exist except as punishment for a crime is a “loophole” that has been exploited ever since to forestall black emancipation.  How does antiblackness hide out in plain sight—in this case, precisely through the on-screen desire for black liberation?

First, criminalization of blackness does not begin with the 13th Amendment, as argued by DuVernay (and many, many other people, as well).  Rather, it is the work of slavery itself, as consultation of court cases from the slavocracy confirms.  Slavery was not the wholesale rejection of black humanity.  On the contrary, the law recognized slave humanity only in order to ascribe criminal liability to black agency.  Second, the 13th Amendment does not bear a “loophole” that opportunists and racists alike have been able to exploit across the eras.  The clause in question is more accurately termed a design feature, not a design flaw.  To keep calling it a “loophole” is to condone the white nationalist mythology that the Civil War was a war to end slavery.  As W.E.B. DuBois explained in Black Reconstruction, the War aimed to preserve slavery’s place in the Union.[iv]  In the face of the black self-determination that eventually forced the emancipation of the slaves, abolition—in the form of the 13th Amendment—was not about redistributing power, but rather about retrenching it—a sober reminder for all avowedly abolitionist formations.

What we’re dealing with, then, is not the winnowing of slavery to the purview of criminal justice, but rather the socialization of slavery—no plantations, no auction blocks, no prisons, no laws necessary.  Mass incarceration, therefore, is but one discrete moment of the institutionalization of antiblack sexual violence.  All of the details that DuVernay’s narrative gets right and the ones it gets wrong are, well, just that: details that mistake the larger terrain that requires antiblackness as the premise for society’s ethical dilemmas—including the critique of the prison.[v]  The film repeats the claim popularized by Alexander that there are more black people in prison today than enslaved in 1860, as well as other statistics ostensibly geared to validate the magnitude of the problem.  Ultimately, these statistics are beside the point.  Today, non-blacks are also experiencing prison in higher numbers than ever before, but this makes slavery a mere event in non-black lives, whereas it remains a condition of existence for black people, whether they are incarcerated or not.  For this reason, contrary to the argument of 13th, deleting the clause in the 13th Amendment will not end racial slavery once and for all.

To give just one example of the antiblackness that this misrecognition condones, DuVernay concludes 13th with a montage of video footage of iconic police killings from the current moment, arguing that this problem is a consequence of mass incarceration.  This is a common refrain from all political quarters in the 2016 campaign season: blame it on a bloated prison system.[vi]  In short, if we deal productively with the prison industrial complex, the problem of policing will likewise be resolved.  This claim is a gross inversion of how power has worked for just shy of a millennium.  The police and prisons are an expression of a will to use black people and to punish black self-determination that is constitutive to our world, premised on a dehumanization that is prior to any contemporary notions of “police” or “prison.”  The punishment of policing will continue after the Clintons have apologized for supervising the explosion in black imprisonment and after they oversee new criminal justice reforms that transform the landscape of the prison.  In this context, DuVernay’s closing montage of the recent video footage of black death-by-police is a gratuitous reproduction of what is already gratuitous violence, and is more in line with how black people have been used since the dawn of the slave trade than it does intervene in the ongoing reality of fungible blackness.  The closing sequence of images in 13th articulates with the “cinema of social death” wherein displays of black suffering actually curtail “black refusal-of-victimization,” and instead, enlarge other people’s claims to redress.  In the most contorted cover story of them all, blackness comes to mark the full scope of democratic society—but at the expense of black people.[vii]

Such antiblack cover stories demand close scrutiny and exposure to avoid the political delusion that currently drags us down.  In this light, a focus on the abolitionist ethic of black struggle lends a different flavor to a question that Trump posed this electoral season:  what do you have to lose?

 

About the author: Tryon P. Woods is Associate Professor of Crime & Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, Adjunct Lecturer of Africana Studies at Brown University, and author of the forthcoming book Blackhood Against the Police Power: Punishment and Disavowal in the “Post-Racial” Era (Illinois).

 

[Cover image: screenshot from Netflix poster for 13th documentary. See the trailer for the 13th.]

Notes:

[i]  See Tryon P. Woods, Blackhood Against the Police Power: Punishment and Disavowal in the “Post-Racial” Era (Urbana: Illinois, 2017).

[ii]  See Ishamel Reed at http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/08/21/hamilton-the-musical-black-actors-dress-up-like-slave-tradersand-its-not-halloween/.

[iii]  Jared A. Ball, “The Unlucky 13th: Liberalizing the Extreme,” I Mix What I Like, October 25, 2016, https://imixwhatilike.org/2016/10/25/the-unlucky-13th-liberalizing-the-extreme/.  I aim to supplement Ball’s excellent analysis of why the film is a Clinton campaign ad; I stress its embeddedness within an antiblack culture of politics, whereas Ball situates it in terms of a particular racist political economy.

[iv]  W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Free Press, 1998).

[v]  On details, see Dan Berger, “Mass Incarceration and Its Mystification:  A Review of 13th,” African American Intellectual History Society, October 22, 2016, http://www.aaihs.org/mass-incarceration-and-its-mystification-a-review-of-the-13th/.  For a critique of critical prison studies and critical ethnic studies, see Woods, Blackhood Against the Police Power; and P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods, eds., Conceptual Aphasia in Black: Displacing Racial Formation (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2016).

 

[vi]  Again, see Berger, affirmatively quoting Brett Story that “dehumanization is the consequence, not the cause, of mass incarceration.”

 

[vii]  Woods, Blackhood At-Large: The Cinema of Social Death, forthcoming; Joao Costa Vargas and Joy James, “Refusing Blackness-as-Victimization: Trayvon Martin and the Black Cyborgs,” in George Yancey and Janine Jones, eds., Pursuing Trayvon Martin: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Manifestations of Racial Dynamics (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2012).

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